Athletes Can’t Get By on Grit Alone

It takes more than dogged persistence and a combative mindset to hit peak performance. If the game is 90 percent mental and emotional, then mindfulness has a role to play in getting athletes prepped for their best.

okalinichenko/Adobe Stock

Let’s face it: sport doesn’t exactly have a great reputation these days. The media is littered with stories of cheating, abuse, corruption, violence… you name it and the sporting world has probably seen it.

Athletes, coaches, and team owners are struggling to combine their aspirations of winning with the—not always popular or even welcome—role model status that accompanies elite competition. In my opinion, mindfulness meditation can help accomplish both winning and creating a healthier culture within sport—and it doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other.

I realize that a good lot of you appreciate this. But I was an eye-rolling skeptic at one point in my athletic and coaching career. I struggled to understand the positive influence of mindfulness not only on an athlete’s performance trajectory, but also on the overall psyche of the individual and their team.

The majority of athletes and coaches that I associated with also did not understand the benefits of mindfulness: we believed that high performance was the result of hard work and grit, all of which was encompassed within a combative mindset. Now, I won’t argue that those two components aren’t essential and that a combative mindset can’t work—but I will argue that there’s so much more to high performance, and that a mindset based on conflict, held dear by many, is incredibly limiting.

Besides, if we’re going continue to imbue the notion that 90% of the game, whatever that may be, is the mental and emotional component, perhaps we should actually walk that talk!

Beyond the high performance piece, however, there’s a bigger question here: how does sport remain relevant in a world overwhelmed with turmoil, poverty, and despair? For too many around the globe, the Olympic medal count or winning championship titles have very little to do with their day-to-day survival.

If sport doesn’t elevate itself to another level of significance, I don’t believe it can remain pertinent to those who are suffering and challenged by so many parts of their lives. Sport has to provide us with something bigger. That’s where mindfulness can serve sport on a deeper level and enable athletes to discover other reasons to engage in competition that transcend simply winning or losing.

When I’ve been asked what I enjoy most about coaching, it comes down to the relationship that I’ve established with my athletes, as well as knowing that our work together in the pursuit of high performance has brought about a transformative experience for that young person.

Don’t get me wrong, winning is fun, but after years of success it’s not what drives me. The athletes that I work with learn that sport is simply a vehicle for personal change. From that place they become ambassadors for what a mindful experience of sport can look like. Aside from the success they enjoy, invariably what they treasure is the experience of the journey and the deep inner work that’s transpired. When athletes move on from their careers in sport with that outlook on life, they become powerful conduits for positive change in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, winning is fun, but after years of success it’s not what drives me. The athletes that I work with learn that sport is simply a vehicle for personal change.

As to the high performance piece, the science behind mindfulness practices and their affirmative impact on high performance athletes and teams are well documented.

Research shows that regular mindfulness practice improves and sustains focus in athletes while reducing stress that results from intense competition. The results? A locker room without negativity, and the inner trust that athletes have what it takes to compete. Here’s a few examples from recent research:

  • BMX competitors from the USA BMX Cycling Team went through a seven-week program involving exercises to enhance bodily awareness. Participants reported less anxiety and greater awareness, according to the pilot study.
  • The George Mason University men’s basketball team participated in eight 90-minute mindfulness sessions focused on acceptance of negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions. After each session, the team would wind down with a 90-minute yoga session as well. Team members reported “greater goal-directed energy,” greater mindfulness, and less stress than a control group that received no mindfulness training.
  • Pete Carroll, head coach of the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, assisted by sports psychologist Michael Gervais, uses mindfulness techniques like breathing, visualization, and mental-imaging to help the team balance the physical and mental aspects of the game. Learn more about their coaching style in Mindful‘s feature, “The Game Changer.”

As a coach, I’ve seen the winning results of these attributes with the teams that I’ve worked with—I no longer need convincing. It’s simply an inherent part of any competitive strategy my teams embrace going forward.

Take Simon Whitfield as an example. This four-time Olympian in triathlon has more Olympic, World Cup, and Commonwealth Games medals and other impressive accomplishments than I have room for in this article. He’s had a career that any athlete would part with a limb to call their own. Despite his many accolades, when asked if he could redo with his triathlon career and change one component of his preparation, Simon’s answer was telling: “I would meditate one minute for every minute that I trained.”

Simon Whitfield, a four-time Olympian in triathlon said that if he could redo his career and change one component of his preparation, he would “meditate one minute for every minute that I trained.”

“Time spent in deep contemplation” is Whitfield’s answer to achieving a higher level of performance. Now, I’ll admit, I’m stubborn at the best of times, but, if I was an aspiring athlete or coach, and I got wind of someone of Simon’s ability singing the praises of meditation with regard to high performance, I’d pay attention.

As I’ve discovered along my own journey from that of a combative athlete and coach to one with a more holistic mindset, I can tell you straight up that my relationship with sport has evolved—drastically.

I used to see the purpose of competition as merely striving to be the victor—to stand atop the podium having defeated my lessor competitors. It was an experience that lived solely in my ego. My connection with sports existed only on the surface and filled a very shallow part of me.

Today, having adapted numerous mindfulness practices into my coaching, my relationship with sport and competition lives in a much deeper place—serving a far greater need and purpose. I’ve realized as a coach that by using meditation, yoga, and other strategies that support our mental and emotional well-being in my work, I’ve not only experienced far greater success with my teams, but I’ve helped my athletes realize the potential of high performance sport to transform their own lives.

Therein lies the truest opportunity for sport. If more coaches and athletes tried mindfulness, we could see an enormous shift in the future direction of sport. And, not just in the ability and performance of our athletes, but also in their role as global citizens.

I’m not suggesting that we sing Kumbaya instead of national anthems at the beginning of games or finish them with group hugs—although, it probably wouldn’t hurt. I’m suggesting that we try to change the culture and thereby the purpose of sport at its very root.

When we connect with the power of sport to not only transform lives but also inspire greatness, friendship, love, and peace on a world scale—then we’re beginning to tap into the possibilities of sport. Until that time, we’re simply enabling sport to remain as the distraction that so many people—too many people—rely on it for.

Mindfulness has the potential to raise the game in sport. Both in terms of performance and in how we as viewers experience it and how athletes participate in it.